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James may have to come to their defense

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 11, 2010

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Cavaliers coach Mike Brown has approached the media the past few days in a somewhat confused state. After his angry tirade following Game 2, his club went to work on the Celtics in Game 3 and seized momentum in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Now, after a Game 4 loss in which his team was embarrassed by a 6-foot-1-inch point guard for 18 rebounds, Brown is unsure of his next move. LeBron James offered Sunday night to guard Rondo, who is making a mockery of Brown’s decision to assign Mo Williams and Anthony Parker to defend him.

James appeared tired of watching Rondo dash up and down the court, driving into the lane repeatedly for scoop shots or flip passes to open teammates. The Cavaliers were favored to win this series in either five or six games and their inconsistent effort — quite reminiscent of the Celtics in the regular season — is cause for concern.

Brown’s postgame comments following Game 2 had an effect on his team for one game. On Sunday, after taking a 7-0 lead, the Cavaliers were knocked on their heels by the Celtics, who controlled most of the next three quarters. And it’s not like the Celtics have received above-average contributions from their roster.

Paul Pierce has been shoddy at best. Kevin Garnett has been steady but not spectacular. Ray Allen is shooting 41 percent, 26 percent from the 3-point line. Rondo has been the catalyst and seemingly, the Cavaliers realize at least one of the Big Three is primed for a standout game.

Brown didn’t promise that James would check Rondo the entire game, but at this juncture, he is open to suggestions because one more loss puts the Celtics in control.

“We’ve got to keep trying to put different people on him,’’ Brown said yesterday. “[Anthony Parker] guarded him some, Mo [Williams] guarded him some, [Jamario] Moon guarded him a few plays. Delonte [West] guarded him some. We’re going to give LeBron an opportunity.’’

Although Pierce has hardly frightened the Cavaliers in the series — 11.8 points per game, 32 percent shooting, 22 percent 3-point shooting — Brown does not want to create another mismatch by using the 6-9 James against Rondo. The Cavaliers don’t have anybody to guard Pierce with the physicality James has. Pierce could post up West, Moon, or Parker and get off to a fast start.

The Celtics were 20-9 in the regular season when Pierce scored 20 or more points, 2-0 in the postseason. Brown is afraid trying to stop Rondo will simply spring Pierce.

“The part that makes it a little tough is during the flow of the game when Pierce is in there,’’ Brown said. “You put LeBron on Rondo and now you got a smaller guy on Pierce and it could open up another can of worms. We just have to make sure we keep trying to put different bodies on him and keep trying to make adjustments.’’

Brown has more concerns than just Rondo. Shaquille O’Neal was brought to Cleveland to make a difference in critical games. Yet he played the first 49 seconds of the fourth quarter in Game 4, picked up his fifth foul, and did not return. O’Neal finished with 17 points, 5 rebounds and 2 blocks, but watched as the Celtics ran off the first 10 points of the quarter as Brown opted for Anderson Varejao.

That is usually a good plan against the Celtics, but Varejao did not collect a rebound in the final quarter as the Cavaliers were outrebounded, 16-6.

“Any player in his position would be upset for not coming back in,’’ Brown said of O’Neal, who along with James did not speak yesterday. “You respect a guy being upset in that situation, you’re OK with it. But he did not communicate with me that he wanted to go back in.’’

Said James following Game 4: “First of all, Shaq played extremely well and I was kind of surprised not to see him back on the floor the whole fourth quarter. But they definitely turned it around after that point. They were able to go up 10 really fast in that fourth quarter. They used their speed, they countered our aggression to their speed and they turned the game around.’’

So let’s get this straight. James wants to guard Rondo. O’Neal was irked about being benched down the stretch. Brown has no idea what to expect from Williams and the usually dependable Cleveland bench produced 8 points in 54-plus minutes in Game 4.

The Cavaliers’ confidence is shaken, and Brown seems unsure what to expect tonight. The Celtics have won twice in four meetings at Quicken Loans Arena this season, and Cleveland appeared unmotivated in Games 1 and 2.

“Defensively we have not been our best,’’ said Brown, whose team has allowed 97.1 points this postseason, 1.5 points higher than the regular season. “We’re in the playoffs. We’re playing some pretty good teams. The Celtics are a good team. We believe we’re a good team also. I am OK with how we are moving during our playoff run. In the real world, if you ask anybody that’s been in a seat like this if they didn’t feel any pressure trying to make it to the top, if they said no, they are probably not telling the truth.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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